- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kory Lichtensteiger was away from his television during the NFL draft in April, so he had his wife send him a text message of each Washington Redskins selection. There was a natural sense of relief as name after name popped up on his phone. Not until the final round did the Redskins select an offensive lineman.

Coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to prioritize other positions despite the line’s struggles last season might have resulted from the team’s wide range of needs. But Lichtensteiger, ever the optimist, interpreted that as a vote of confidence.

“That’s the way it feels to the player,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s how the coaches feel.”

The truth eventually will be known. If the free agent market ever opens under a new collective bargaining agreement, Shanahan could try to upgrade a unit that ranked 23rd in the NFL last season in sacks per pass play. For now, though, last year’s offensive line remains intact.

Regardless of the group’s composition, though, it must play better for the NFL’s 31st-ranked offense to emerge as a significant force. The linemen at the team’s players-only practices this week are confident it will.

“Toward the end of last year, we started to figure out what we were trying to accomplish as an offense with the running game,” said Lichtensteiger, who won the starting left guard spot in Week 3. “I think we laid a pretty solid foundation for the upcoming year.”

If Shanahan does enter 2011 with last year’s group, he will do so at his own risk. Drafting left tackle Trent Williams fourth overall in 2010 didn’t cure the deficiencies that he inherited up front.

In addition to the Redskins‘ pass-protection woes, they ranked 30th in rushing yards per game last season and 16th in rushing yards per carry. They rushed for fewer than 60 yards in a quarter of their games.

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Lichtensteiger said. “I guess everybody kind of took their turns screwing up here and there.”

A mix of injuries and underachievement prompted Shanahan to use seven starting line combinations. It hampered the group’s chemistry and slowed its growth in the new zone-blocking scheme.

Things finally came together in Week 14 when Washington rushed for 188 yards, including 174 in the first half, in a 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay.

“There’s no reason we can’t do that kind of production every week,” right guard Will Montgomery said. “If you look at the [Denver] Broncos when Shanahan was there, that was their staple. It’s a system that works, but it also takes a little bit of time for everybody to get on the same page.”

Last year’s experiences, then, should serve as a springboard, players said.

Players last season sometimes mistimed cut blocks — a staple of Shanahan’s running scheme. Hitting landmarks was another major issue, Lichtensteiger said. The system often requires linemen to block certain parts of a defender’s body — an inside or outside shoulder, perhaps — and precision is essential.

“I think we’re just understanding landmarks and the kind of attitude and technique that we need to have,” Lichtensteiger said. “It takes a while to do that. Certainly having no offseason this year isn’t going to help. Hopefully, we don’t regress a bit.”

If the Redskins don’t add any free agent linemen, they have some unproven options. Tackle/guard Selvish Capers, a seventh-round pick in 2010, expects to compete for playing time after spending all of last season on the practice squad.

Capers played OK at times last training camp, but his feet often were too slow, and there were awareness issues typical of a rookie. He should be more consistent with a better understanding of the offense.

“Last year, I’m kind of thinking pre-snap of what do I have to do and what’s my assignment,” Capers said. “Now it’s second nature.”

Maurice Hurt, the only lineman drafted this spring, is comfortable with the zone-scheme concepts because they’re similar to what he ran at Florida.

“I like getting out in the open field, and I also like the griminess of being inside in the trenches,” he said. “Whatever I’m asked for, I’ll be able to do.”

Shanahan’s most pressing decision is whether to re-sign right tackle Jammal Brown, who likely will be a free agent. Letting him leave would create a significant need.

Even before that matter is settled, though, the line has established goals for the upcoming season. Whether it meets them will help determine the Redskins‘ fate.

“We’re definitely looking to lower the sack total, and we definitely need to get a 100-yard rusher every game,” Lichtensteiger said. “I think just better overall performances from everybody.”